Lebanon braces for more violence as anti-Assad rebels flee key Syrian town

 

McClatchy Foreign Staff

The collapse of a rebel bastion inside Syria showed its effects inside Lebanon on Monday as rival communities rocketed one another, snipers opened fire along a critical highway near the Syrian border and at least two car bombs targeted Shiite Muslim villages in the Bekaa Valley.

Terrorism analysts and intelligence officials blamed the rise in violence on an influx of militants into Lebanon after Syrian government troops, led by their Lebanese Shiite allies from Hezbollah, took control over the weekend of Yabroud, one of the last rebel-held population centers in the mountainous Qalamoun region along the Lebanese border. Tens of thousands of civilians already had fled the fighting into the rebel-sympathetic Lebanese border town of Arsal. By Sunday night it became apparent that many rebel gunmen were also fleeing into Lebanon.

At midnight Sunday, a suicide bomber struck a Hezbollah checkpoint on the road linking Arsal to Shiite communities in the Bekaa, killing a local security commander and at least three other people.

By Monday morning, the Lebanese army was responding to reports of rockets fired from areas around Arsal into the Shiite – and strongly pro-Hezbollah _ communities of Labweh and Hermel. Shells fired from inside Syria reportedly struck Arsal, while there were persistent reports of snipers targeting communities on both sides of the Syrian conflict up and down the main Bekaa Valley highway.

“After last night’s car bomb, there’s been at least one other booby-trapped car found outside of Fakehe that the army destroyed,” said a Lebanese security official who spoke under the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the Western media. “And rockets from Syria have hit Arsal, while rockets from somewhere outside of Arsal have hit Hermel and Labweh.”

“This is an extremely dangerous time for Lebanon,” he said. “We could be one incident away from Shiites and Sunnis turning this into a civil war.”

The official said that it remained unclear if the uptick in violence was a temporary flash as militants escape the Hezbollah dragnet around Yabroud or if the escalation represented a new commitment by Syrian rebel groups to expand operations into Lebanon as they lose territory inside Syria.

“They’ve lost Qusayr, then Homs, now most of Qalamoun,” he said, referring to two other Syrian cities in addition to the mountainous border region. “They’re being squeezed like a lemon and the juice is draining into Lebanon. But instead of a nice drink, we’re getting Nusra,” he said, making reference to al Qaida’s official Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front.

While the first claim of responsibility for Sunday night’s suicide bomb – the eighth such attack targeting Hezbollah-linked neighborhoods this year _ came from the little known Free Sunnis of Baalbek Brigades, that claim was later superseded by Nusra’s statement, which said the bombing was revenge for the “rape” of Yabroud by Hezbollah and also retribution for the ecstatic victory celebrations in the Shiite suburbs of Beirut at news of the Syrian government’s victory in Yabroud.

Although exact figures have not been released by the group, scores of Hezbollah’s well-trained troops are thought to have died in the Qalamoun campaign, with some reports putting their total casualties in Syria at more than 500 dead.

“We are obviously concerned about the possibility Nusra is shifting operations into Lebanon,” the security official said.

For now, the official Nusra social media channels have remained vague on exactly how “Nusra in Lebanon” fits into the overall patchwork of Syrian jihadist groups that include Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and Ahrar al Sham, a group whose top leadership has included al Qaida figures.

Aymeen Tamimi, who studies jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria as a fellow with the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based research organization, said that so far, Nusra’s official Twitter account treats the Lebanon group as separate. But he said that might be a ruse to exaggerate the reach of the group’s ideology. “It helps the overall ideological cause,” he said. “There are superficially more groupings and manpower.”

But with rebels squeezed in the suburbs of Damascus and losing long-held turf in western Syria to the regime and Hezbollah, Nusra might be forced to expand its operations directly into Lebanon on a consistent basis, Tamimi said.

“I think it’s just a matter of time,” he said.

Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero

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